Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Highlight Reel: Senate Climate Change Smackdown

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

In summer 2009, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) butted heads in what was to be the last Senate hearing on climate change for three years. Then, the debate was over pending climate change legislation, with both sides firing off the usual arguments: obstructionism by the right and overspending by the left. The two powerhouse legislators locked horns again yesterday on climate change for the first time since then, but this time the argument amongst members of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee was back to climate kindergarten: Is it actually happening?

Fortunately, there were actually a few climate scientists on hand, including IPCC lead author Christopher Field and Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy, along with John Christy, an Alabama climatologist tapped by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to lead the denial side. Later, the panel heard from a trio of business and civic planning officials, who testified on the public health risks posed by climate change and on ways private enterprise can adapt (or not).

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Maps: The Secrets Drillers Can Hide About the Fracking in Your Backyard

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Are frackers in your state allowed to keep secrets?

A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that most states where fracking occurs have no disclosure laws at all, and that those that do are woefully behind when it comes to revealing behind-the-scenes details of their operations. While the Obama administration has put some new rules in place, many decisions about what drillers are allowed to hide are left to the states; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar complained to Reuters that state-level regulation is "not good enough for me, because states are at very different levels, some have zero, some have decent rules."

That's a problem, study author Amy Mall said, because unlike coal plants and other large-scale energy operations, fracked natural gas wells are often in close proximity to houses, schools, or other high-traffic areas.

At stake is a trove of information: exact ingredients of the chemical cocktail used to frack a particular site, when and where drillers plan to frack, how toxic wastewater is to be dealt with, and many more basic details, all of which could be useful to local politicians and residents concerned about health impacts, groundwater and air pollution, and seismic activity associated with fracking.

"The state laws on the books aren't anywhere near where they need to be for the public to have information to protect their communities," Mall said.

The maps below highlight just a few areas covered by the report. Click on states for info on their laws, and for more detail check out the full version here.

Are drillers required to disclose chemical mixes before fracking?

Are drillers required to notify nearby stakeholders of their intent to frack?

Are drillers required to disclose details about their wastewater?

Are drillers required to disclose trade secrets to health care providers?

Folk Singer Chris Smither's "Basic Simplicity"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Chris Smither performs at New York's Highline Ballroom on Thursday, July 12.

Inside New York City's Highline Ballroom, a gaggle of musicians and techies throng around a folding table stacked with cold beer and sandwiches. Most wear loose-fitting traveling clothes; they've just gotten off the road from home base in Boston, finishing the first leg of a tour that will stretch well into next year. A tall figure in black pushes back his mane of hair, more grey than the room's average, and cuts a path through the crowd to a side room. 

"Usually I play solo, so I'm not used to taking care of everybody," he says, closing the door behind us.

Chris Smither has been in and out of rooms like this for nearly half a century, but he's still getting used to bringing a band this size along with him. A singer-songwriter who points to the stripped-down styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt as major influences, Smither says it's taken until recently to feel comfortable touring with a full backing band like the one on his twelfth studio album, last month's Hundred Dollar Valentine.

Smither, now 68, rose to prominence in the early '70s as a solo artist with an ear for a unique interweaving of Cambridge folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique, thumping bass lines on the low strings while plucking melodies on the high strings, tapping time with his foot, and singing in a voice with a low end that cuts like the edge of a broken whiskey bottle. He was never one to shun a little good sonic company, forging lifelong partnerships with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, but the arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are thicker than usual, with a full complement of electric guitar, backing vocals, harmonica, bass, and drums on nearly every tune.

"I've found sympathetic ears" in this band, he says. "People who like my music for the right reasons, by which I mean my reasons." He laughs, as he does between nearly every sentence, and the creases in his face seem to make his eyes sink even farther back in his head. He's relaxed and comfortable, and still is an hour later in the spotlight. On stage he seems hardly to notice the musicians behind him. There's no conducting; they can keep up with the train or fall off. Smither's foot will still be tapping either way.

Is the Natural Gas Industry Buying Academics?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Last week the University of Texas provost announced he would reexamine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It's the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.

Texans aren't the only ones having their fracking conversations shaped by industry-funded research. Ohioans got their first taste last week of the latest public-relations campaign by the energy policy wing of the US Chamber of Commerce. It's called "Shale Works for US," and it aims to spend millions on advertising and public events to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking is a surefire way to yank the state out of recession.

The campaign is loaded with rosy employment statistics, which can be traced to an April report authored by professors at three major Ohio universities and funded by, you guessed it, the natural gas industry. The report paints a bright future for fracking in Ohio as a job creator.

One coauthor of the study, Robert Chase, is prominent enough within the state's natural gas universe that his case was recently taken up by the Ohio Ethics Commission, whose chairman called Chase "more than a passing participant in the operations of the Ohio oil and gas industry" and questioned his potential conflicts of interest. As landowners in natural-gas-rich states like Texas and Ohio struggle to decipher conflicting reports about the safety of fracking, Chase is a piece in what environmental and academic watchdogs call a growing puzzle of industry-funded fracking research with poor disclosure and dubious objectivity.

"It's hard to find someone who's truly independent and doesn't have at least one iron in the fire," said Ohio oil and gas lease attorney Mark F. Okey. "It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own." 

"It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own."

Chase got his petroleum engineering Ph.D. from Penn State University. In 2009, long after Chase left the university, it came under fire for a fracking report, widely cited by state politicians as evidence for opening up the fracking market, which an in-house investigator said "crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy." Early in his career, Chase worked as a consultant for many of the nation's biggest oil and gas developers, including Halliburton, Cabot, and EQT. In 1978 he began teaching petroleum engineering at Marietta College, the small Ohio liberal arts school where he remains on faculty today. In 2008, Ohio's then-Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him to the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission, an independent judiciary board that hears complaints from landowners and developers against the state's Division of Mineral Resources Management. And last year, he founded his own consultancy, Chaseland LLC, that helps connect landowners with gas companies seeking drilling rights, for which Chase collects a commission.

Charts: Gen Xers Say "Meh" to Climate Change

| Tue Jul. 17, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Generation Xers grew up with MTV, Nirvana, and the dot-com bubble. Today, Americans born roughly between 1961 and 1981 are better educated and work longer hours than their parents, sit on their children's school boards, and take active roles in their communities. But when it comes to climate change, Gen Xers voice a resounding "meh."Tim McDonnellTim McDonnell

That's the result of a University of Michigan study that polled some 3,000 Gen Xers and found that in the last several years their overall interest in climate change has waned.

Sociologist Jon Miller, the study's author, sees this as a sign of victory for the climate disinformation campaign. "I was optimistic because this group of people is more scientifically literate; they've grown up in an era of of science and quantitative discussion, unlike their grandparents," Miller says. But the complexity of climate science, the long time scale it takes to play out, and seeds of doubt sown on the nightly news have caused many Gen Xers to simply tune it out.

The data shows a broad "migration to the middle," says Miller, with passionate voices on both ends of the spectrum quieting down in favor of passive disengagement.Tim McDonnellTim McDonnell

The trend cuts through the political spectrum, as the chart at the top of this post shows: Conservative, moderate, and liberal Gen Xers alike felt more "disengaged" about climate change than any other attitude (details on those categories here). Not surprisingly, conservatives were overwhelmingly less concerned about climate change than liberals, with moderates split more or less evenly.

 

Climate change is one of the most politicized scientific issues in recent history. Miller says that when faced with loud debate over a subject they don't fully understand and whose full impacts seem to be on the horizon, most people will just stick with their political party lines. "Democracy works best on short-term issues, so [climate change] is a real challenge," he says.

But stepping outside the Gen X bubble, a string of recent climate-related surveys suggest a society more ready and willing to grapple with global warming could be in the offing.

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